Outside of the USA, most people know her mainly as a poet and writer, but she expressed her creative genius through multiple media. She was a singer, a dancer, a film director and an important political activist to name but a few. So, making the first ever biographical film about the life of Maya Angelou was certainly not an easy task. The result is an in-depth portrayal of a woman who created art out from real life, and turned any adversities she encountered into wisdom and poetry.
And when I finally decided to speak again, I had a lot to say
‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do it with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style’ is one of Dr Angelou’s many popular quotes. Despite the fact that the film does not reach great heights in terms of style, it leaves little doubt that her life was otherwise. And Still I Rise inhabits classical biographical film structure; with archive footage and talking heads interviews. The story is told in a puzzle of voices, everyone who appears in the film is a witness to the person Dr. Angelou was, while they all simultaneously influenced her and her work in one way or another. Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Hillary Clinton, John Singleton and Dr. Angelou’s own son, Guy Johnson, all weave into a narrative tied together by interviews with Dr. Angelou herself, telling her side of the story with her unforgettable charm and wit.
The film covers each step of her life in chronological order. Starting with a childhood filled with abuse and neglect. Raised in a racist and poor environment in the American South, she was raped at a young age, a traumatic event that left her mute for five years. She then turned into ‘an ear’: paying attention to everything, reading and absorbing words from everyone around her. ‘And when I finally decided to speak again, I had a lot to say’, she explains. What she had to say would eventually lead to her publishing her first and most famous autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1966.
On the first day of 1944, aged 16, she gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson, whose father was a boy from Angelou’s neighborhood. In the film, she describes her mother’s reaction to the news of her being pregnant. Her mother asked her whether she loved the father of the child – she didn’t – and whether he loved her. Since that was also not the case, the mother said there was no reason to destroy three lives by forcing them to be together. Thus it was settled that she would raise the child alone, a task which initially lead her to working odd jobs to make ends meet, eventually bringing her to a period in her life when she worked as a prostitute. Dr. Angelou made no secret of this period, but the film skips to the time when she was a dancer, travelling around the US and abroad, forced to leave her son behind. The Guy Johnson interview explains a lot about the emotional burden of their separation. It also tells about the wonderful mother that she was. He recalls how she brought him to civil rights protests, and how ashamed he felt when she showed up at school dressed in poignant African dresses. She was an example of dignity and strength which he only understood much later.
One particular story Johnson tells, is particularly powerful and evocative of Dr. Angelou’s character. He recalls the time when the opportunity arose for Dr. Angelou to be Pearl Bailey’s understudy in a play. That role was an opportunity for her to stay with her son, as no travel was required for a year or more. But, Bailey wanted someone else, because Maya Angelou was ‘too ugly’. Johnson vividly recalls the pain caused by that moment. Yet, many years later, when Bailey received a lifetime achievement award and was asked who she wanted to give it to her, she chose Maya Angelou. Dr. Angelou handed her the award without saying a word. The many stories about Dr Angelous’s strength and charm are what stick to the mind following the film. The Dr Angelou interviews are gems all will appreciate. The film does well in capturing her special charm, and also in showing how her life and work remained inseparable. In the end, her legacy might mean different things to different people, but what is certain is that at its heart is a life well lived, something this film celebrates.